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Bill clarifies flag bus stops as legal

Kyle Gonzales and Jessica Staley get off a bus at a stop in rural North Whidbey. They are in favor of a bill that would clarify state law to allow buses to stop at unmarked places in rural areas. Gonzales said he ended up walking six miles in the countryside outside Burlington because the bus wouldn’t stop where he asked. - Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times
Kyle Gonzales and Jessica Staley get off a bus at a stop in rural North Whidbey. They are in favor of a bill that would clarify state law to allow buses to stop at unmarked places in rural areas. Gonzales said he ended up walking six miles in the countryside outside Burlington because the bus wouldn’t stop where he asked.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen sponsored a bill she hopes will make public transportation more user-friendly for people who live in rural areas.

The Democratic state senator, who represents the district that includes Whidbey, wants to clarify state law so that buses can stop at unmarked places in rural areas. In other words, it allows people to flag down a bus in the boondocks or ask to be let out of a bus near their home, even if there’s not a bus stop in the vicinity.

But at least one local law enforcement official is concerned that the proposal could make the county roads and highways a little more dangerous, even though it’s been standard practice for Island Transit for 21 years.

“In the past year and a half, we’ve seen two serious accidents involving people getting off the bus at undesignated stops,” Lt. Jason Longoria with the Washington State Patrol said. “I’m also concerned about road rage with drivers who are following behind buses that are continually stopping.”

Longoria said an accident on Bush Point Road last November was caused by a pedestrian who had gotten off an Island Transit bus at an undesignated stop. A driver had to swerve off the road, causing her car to roll into a ditch, to avoid hitting the teenager. The driver went to the hospital with minor injuries.

On Dec. 15, 2007, 15-year-old Tonya Scriven was struck and killed on Highway 525 in Greenbank after getting off an Island Transit bus at an undesignated stop. She tried to cross the highway after the bus left and was hit by a car. The driver was not at fault.

Yet Tim Scriven, Tonya’s father, said he’s not opposed to the bill. He doesn’t fault the bus driver or Island Transit for dropping his daughter off at the site on Wonn Road.

“That’s where she wanted to be dropped off,” he said. “She crossed the road there a hundred times before.”

Scriven said people are always darting across the highway in the area and changing the rules for buses won’t prevent that. If people have to go to bus stops, that means a lot more walking for them. He knows of another teenaged girl who uses the bus regularly in the area.

“I would hate to see her walk a couple of extra miles,” he said.

Island County Sheriff Mark Brown is co-chairman of the traffic safety committee for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. He said the committee recently debated the issue and decided to remain neutral.

Brown said law enforcement in the state is somewhat torn on the bill. He said they are concerned about buses dropping people off at unmarked sites, especially since it’s legal for other cars to pass the buses when they are pulled over.

On the other hand, he points out that bus riders would have to walk greater distances along country roads, and pose a greater traffic risk, if buses only stop at bus stops.

“Our only concern is traffic safety,” Brown said. “If this passes, there has to be a high level of safety training for bus drivers.”

Martha Rose, director of Island Transit, testified in support of Senate Bill 5180. She said nearly all transit systems that operate in rural areas make “flag stops,” which is the term for stops at unmarked sites. Riders can “flag” down buses to get a ride.

“As a rural system, we can’t really run without flag stops,” she said.

Although the law enforcement officials say flag stops are technically illegal, both Rose and Haugen point out that two laws regarding the issue are contradictory. They said the bill, if passed, would simply clarify the law.

Officers on Whidbey have never handed out tickets to bus drivers for flag stops, but Haugen said law enforcement in other counties have tried to halt the practice.

“People who use public transit in the city usually have stops within a few blocks of their destinations, but stops are more spread out in rural communities like ours,” said Haugen. “We can’t afford to build a formal bus stop as frequently as we would like along our rural highways, but that doesn’t mean we can’t give our transit drivers some discretion to pick up or drop off people when it’s safe and convenient to do so.”

Rose said bus drivers receive comprehensive training about how to make safe flag stops, as well as constant refresher courses. They also operate by strict guidelines regarding such stops, which she said are “literally five seconds.” Driver only stop where there’s a good sight distance and pull off the road as far as possible.

“Whatever we can do to get people to use the buses and make it more convenient for them, the more cars we can get off the road,” she said.

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